Given Christopher Nolan accomplishes as much in-camera as possible there is very little left to the imagination in Oppenheimer. From the bomb to the billions of stars and even boobs, Nolan gives us everything that made J. Robert Oppenheimer (the J apparently stands for nothing) tick. Was he a neurotic loner who was also a womanizer? A cold-hearted physicist as well as a bleeding-heart liberal? That seems to be the case and maybe the best case for why Nolan’s historical biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb” is so successful: it seamlessly integrates these contradictions into the narrative surrounding the moment that set the course of humanity on a different trajectory. Nolan's trademarks are well-suited to the story of a(nother) tortured genius who faces the greatest moral dilemma - possibly in history - and must come to terms with both his ambition, understanding his actions, and eventually wrangling with his legacy as he sees it being maligned and he himself being exiled by those with real power. 

Though technically a biopic, Oppenheimer doesn't necessarily carry a weight of obligation to feel like a fully formed portrait of the titular man, but rather Nolan's focus and more importantly his technique add more thematic and worldly weight to the proceedings rather than simply amounting to a highlight reel of Oppenheimer's most notable moments. This is also a more roundabout way of saying Nolan moves through much of his subject's life at a breakneck speed, especially in the beginning as Oppenheimer goes from student to well-renowned physicist in a handful of scenes, with very little handholding, while still elegantly establishing what inspires, drives, and irritates his main character propelling us into the second - most electric - hour of the film.

Almost too dense to feel like writing anything about it would scratch the surface of Nolan's intent, what stands out as the throughline is the fragility of the egos many of these men possess and the extent they/we go to achieve if not then secure a certain status, reputation, or lasting importance. Funny, of course, that in searching for validation from the world that Oppenheimer then creates what is “a destroyer of worlds” but Oppenheimer – at least as played by Cillian Murphy – conveys a man who would have us believe he’s chasing a better society and not solely a self-fulfilment only such recognition could fulfill. Nolan crafts both Oppenheimer’s frame of mind and the results of his pursuits through several separate timelines and distinct perspectives allowing for those represented via color to feel more organic and unrefined given much of it is Oppenheimer’s distinct perspective whereas the legal proceedings we see in black and white are much more static and procedural. 

Cillian Murphy as Robert J. Oppenheimer in Cristopher Nolan's latest.
Photo by Universal Pictures - © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

When I say technique I mean the execution in terms of the sound design, the score, the way in which Jennifer Lame cuts and intercuts Nolan’s timelines together and of course the scope at which Hoyte Van Hoytema composes his shots even when it’s simply people talking in a room; even if the setting or location may not feel staggering or even aesthetically unique, Hoytema and Nolan are able to emphasize the magnitude of the moment through their visual instincts. The story, the people involved, the psychological effect on those people not to mention the ramifications on the world at large are all at the forefront of our mind as we watch Murphy walk into a crowded gym of cheering contemporaries waiting to hear Oppenheimer’s reaction to the dropping of the bomb. This moment, in what is maybe the sequence of the year and crystallizes why this film is exemplary, utilizes every tool in Nolan’s bag to not only put us inside Oppenheimer’s mind, but utilizes its optical and aural opportunities to transcend the screen and make us genuinely feel the anguish and fear and uncertainty about what this man has done, what he’s responsible for, and what this means for the future of the human race. 

Not strictly concerned with the male ego but permeating throughout, Nolan’s entire reasoning for the third hour seems to be to not only show the external and self-inflicted consequences on Oppenheimer, but more to address the systemic issues of putting lowly shoe salesman in positions of authority over the thinkers and creators. To this extent, the who’s who of supporting actors is obviously impressive. Robert Downey Jr. is the second lead and gives a largely non-RDJ performance while still maintaining being the wisest person in the room even if he might not be the smartest. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are the principal women of the cast each with key scenes that aid in Oppenheimer’s arc if not their own relationships dissolution. In the true supporting roles David Krumholtz helps lend Oppenheimer sympathy, Josh Hartnett does the same with equity, and Matt Damon comes in clutch to deliver a crusty general who is snappy in his assertions and commands lending some much-needed levity; all are fantastic. Furthermore, each seem to understand the tone and capacity of their role and it is through this that the film melds their performances instinctively with Ludwig Göransson’s score to create these ominous, montage-like storytelling moments to convey how the ideas of this group of people whose convictions and intelligence were exploited for the sake of the war still attempt to remain pragmatic in the face of reality. 

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer.
Photo by Universal Pictures - © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Staggering, monumental, haunting. Oppenheimer is the kind of achievement that stays with you, that bleeds into your everyday thoughts, and makes you consider things just a hair longer than you might have before. Nolan is a technical wizard with past complaints about his films being that they are cold, too forthright in their themes, and don’t handle their female characters well. Nolan has grown in each of these respects, but more Oppenheimer signals what may be the filmmaker’s biggest leap thus far as it is almost undoubtedly his greatest triumph, a culmination of his career up to this point, his magnum opus, a crowning achievement. This is a masterwork of storytelling that will take multiple re-watches to grasp the full depths of everything Nolan is using this historical figure to illustrate. 

The final ten or so minutes of the film are both a literal ticking bomb (via the score) and a psychological one as Oppenheimer is forced to hastily confront those aforementioned choices, actions, and the conflicting evidence of what he did versus how he felt. Nolan typically leans on the science of his premise to provide the meat on the bones of his films should the characters and emotional beats not feel sufficient. This would obviously seem to be the case with a story like Oppenheimer, but while we see visual interpretations of theory early on Nolan largely abandons both these cues and much talk of the scientific process for creating the weapon to lean more into the politics, but more firmly in the direction of his subject’s mounting contradictions through every aspect of their life and how both Oppenheimer’s work and thoughts ultimately consume him.

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